Remembering Our City

By Gary Miedema, originally published July 14, 2008

Street stories help us understand our place

Like most others I know in this city, I wasn’t born here. I migrated into this place about 10 years ago, first to the area of Queen and Carlaw on the east side of the Don River, then to Little Italy on College, then to Little Portugal at Ossington and Dundas, and then a few years back to what real estate agents are now flogging as “trendy Brockton Village”. I’ve come to see Toronto as a transient city, filled with migrants like me.

In that context, people who have lived much of their lives on one street in this city strike me as rare treasures. My memory of this place – of the neighbourhoods I’ve lived in – is scant. Sure I can talk about how Brockton Village once wasn’t as trendy. So can anyone else who has hung around for a few years. But what was Little Italy before the Italians? Or Queen West West before the used appliance shops? I can dig back in city records to figure that out. But I can’t remember it.

I have a fascination for those who can. In such a fleeting, changing city, those with memories of our places, not just of the last 10 years, but perhaps of the last 50 or 70, amaze me. I’ve had the pleasure of living beside two such people, in two of my four homes in Toronto. Through their eyes, I’ve caught glimpses of a neighbourhood already long gone in fact, and now slipping from us in memory.

I’m well aware of the challenges of oral history – the inevitable mistakes, false recollections, and memory gaps. I’m talking about something less formal, less analytical here – about a chat over a drink about whether there were ever more old trees on our concrete jungle of a street, about what was on that lot before that bad infill project, or about when the city widened the street (and cut my tiny front lawn in half so cars could speed by) some 40 years ago. Rarer yet, I’m thinking of the brief encounters on the sidewalk that have opened up to me the mysteries of the community of human beings that inhabit my street – stories of the old woman five houses down who just died, a person unknown to me, but known to my nieghbour for the 50 some years they lived here together. Or stories of the almost reclusive man who died of cancer a year after we moved in, and an off hand remark explaining why another neighbour was so kind to him in the end (they’d grown up together as kids on the street, and stayed here). After one conversation, I found in my hands a family photo taken in front of our two houses, dating back to the 1940s. A rare, personal record, not just of the long gone front porch and unpainted brick, but of the faces of the people who had known Little Italy before it was Little Italy, when eastern European languages reverberated in our kitchens.

I don’t want to romanticize conversations with people who remember. The veterans of my streets have been, to an extent, reluctant keepers of the memories of our shared physical space – quiet people not always interested in my odd questions – and people who have also had clear ideas about what the latest newcomers (my partner and I) should do with the place we now legally own (but which, beyond money, is more theirs than ours).

But people remember. And remembrances, whether we like them or not, help us understand where we live, and why. Though I spend my days digging up the history of Toronto in books and microfilm and old maps, I’m painfully aware that the stories of our city are not all there. Not by a long shot. The elusive photograph of a home, or the relationship between neighbours, or the history of a streetscape, lies in the family albums and casual recollections of those who, by the sheer fact of their rare longevity in one place, know it better than the rest of us ever will.

Know a veteran of your street? Are you one of them? Heritage Toronto would love to see your old photos of Toronto streets and places, and to hear your stories of how your street, and your neighbourhood, have changed.

Dr. Gary Miedema is a historian with Heritage Toronto and a regular contributor to Spacing. He is also the author of For Canada’s Sake: Public Religion, Centennial Celebrations, and the Re-making of Canada in the 1960s (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), and teaches in Ryerson University’s School of Continuing Education.

Photo of Little Italy by Wikimedia Commons

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